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Workers at ‘Atrocious’ Maine Egg Farm Hope for Improved Conditions

July 28, 1996

TURNER, Maine (AP) _ Fanning flies away from her baby, Maria Oureve sits in the cockroach-infested trailer owned by her husband’s employer _ the world’s largest brown egg farm that was recently slapped with a multimillion dollar fine for federal health and safety violations.

A tape-covered rat hole can be seen near baby Alejandro’s crib. Plastic covers empty window frames and the plumbing can’t take flushed toilet paper. While she stays here caring for her three children, Oureve’s husband cleans chicken barns at DeCoster Egg Farm seven days a week for $4.50 an hour.

``If I knew the language I wouldn’t be here,″ said Mrs. Oureve, who is Mexican, smiling and rocking the baby in her arms.

Trailers like this one, and work conditions at the farm, prompted a federal investigation into DeCoster’s other facilities in Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota and possibly other states. The government hasn’t yet established how many farms DeCoster owns nationwide.

Announcing a $3.6 million fine earlier this month, U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich said DeCoster had ignored years of requests to improve a situation he called ``atrocious.″

Federal regulators said they found raw sewage in some of the housing units. Some workers weren’t paid for their work.

``The conditions in this migrant farm site are as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop we have seen,″ Reich said July 12. ``Fear and intimidation kept these workers in this unsafe, unhealthy atmosphere and living in totally unsanitary conditions.″

Owner Austin DeCoster has said he will close a trailer park that provides free housing to his employees. He also said he plans to hire a full-time health and safety director to comply with federal workplace rules.

His lawyer has said they would fight some or all of the charges and contest the fine.

DeCoster and lawyer Michael Healy of Portland didn’t return several calls seeking comment for this story.

With annual sales of more than $40 million, DeCoster employs 320 workers in Turner and another 800 around the country.

The farm produces about 13 million eggs per week. They were available in most major New England supermarkets until Shaw’s and Hannaford Bros. _ Maine’s two largest supermarket chains _ quit selling them because of customer outrage over reports of bad working conditions.

Jose Soto, a businessman who has volunteered his time to help translate for visiting officials, said many farm workers were happy to hear about the consumer backlash, saying they feared for their jobs as a result, but were tired of the long hours, low pay and debilitating injuries.

In another dilapidated trailer in the cluster provided for farm workers and their families, maimed worker Carlos Cordova counted off numbers as he tossed some weekly pay stubs to the floor: ``Eighty-eight hours, no overtime, 103 hours, 95, 98, 93, 90 hours.″

Cordova lost parts of three fingers when his hand was pulled into a machine in June 1995. After paying a $2,500 federal fine, DeCoster said it would put a safety guard on the machine.

A year later, an inspection found that nothing had been done, said Occupational Safety and Health Administration spokesman Stephen Gaskill.

OSHA has inspected DeCoster 14 times since 1976, but was unable to conduct a wall-to-wall inspection until the farm joined a federal program aimed at helping companies with the highest incidence of workplace accidents.

``Workers toiled 10 to 15 hours a day, with no equipment to protect them from disease, picking up dead chickens with their bare hands and handling manure,″ Reich said. ``They were exposed to life-threatening electrical hazards and workers injured on the job often went untreated.″

The farm’s roughly 150 migrant workers come from several Spanish-speaking countries, often recruited with false or exaggerated promises by labor contractors in border states.

``Once they’re here they can’t leave. They’re like indentured servants,″ said state Rep. Patricia Lemaire. ``It’s a captive work force.″

State lawmakers are working on legislation to improve worker housing, give employees the ability to organize and give the state more power to enforce laws.

``We don’t want to force DeCoster’s out of business, just shake them up and force them to comply,″ Lemaire said.

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